Born in 1876 in the Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married an affluent Dutch Colonial Army captain at the age of 18. In 1897, she moved with him to the island of Java, where they had two children.
Her husband was an abusive and resentful alcoholic. To distract herself from the unhappiness of her marriage, Zelle buried herself in the study of Indonesian culture and traditions, including dance.
The marriage slowly deteriorated, and after returning to the Netherlands, the couple separated in 1902. Zelle moved to Paris, where she found work as a circus equestrian, artist’s model, and exotic dancer.
Capitalizing on the growing fad for “Oriental” performances, Zelle adopted the stage name Mata Hari — Malay for “eye of the day” or “sun” — and concocted an elaborate fictional persona. She claimed to be an Indonesian princess trained in exotic rituals and Hindu dances.